A Fantastic Woman [Una mujer fantástica] (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

For the first few minutes of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica),” life seems to be pretty sweet for its transgender heroine, Marina.

An aspiring singer who earns her living working as a waitress, she is involved with Orlando, a successful older businessman.  They adore each other and are deeply committed to building a future together.

This blissful existence is turned upside down in an instant when Orlando dies from a sudden aneurysm.  Instead of being treated with compassion, Marina is mistrusted by hospital staff, suspected of wrongdoing by legal authorities investigating the death, and viewed as an embarrassment and an interloper by Orlando’s family – who consider her an “aberration” and immediately begin pressuring her to move out of the apartment she shared with him.

It’s a stark reality with which Lelio’s film confronts us.  The notion of unexpectedly losing a partner is dreadful enough, in itself; but to be faced with hostility and prejudice in the wake of such tragedy, to be denied the right to grieve the loss – even actively prevented from doing so – is a nightmare most of us are loath to imagine.

Yet such is the insult-to-injury treatment which often awaits survivors within “alternative” partnerships – especially when those survivors are trans – in even the most civilized cultures.  Marina, in her struggle to find closure amidst the transphobic whirlwind that surrounds her following her lover’s death, serves as a stand-in for countless unsung individuals who daily suffer similar indignities.

She’s worthy of bearing that responsibility.

As a character, Marina is both relatable and admirable.  Throughout her ordeal, she maintains her dignity and poise; even when faced with the extreme bigotry of Orlando’s relatives, she manages to remain courteous while still standing firm – putting to shame their boorish and disrespectful treatment of her.  Wrestling to hold on to her sense of self-worth, she responds to a system rigged in favor of hetero-normal identity not by devolving into a spiral of self-pity and self-destructive but by finding solace in the things that reinforce her sense of self-worth, such as the love of her sister and her passion for singing.

She does falter, of course; after a particularly humiliating – and harrowing – encounter with a group of loutish bullies, she resorts to the numbing oblivion of anonymous sex in a crowded nightclub before reclaiming her power and her pride on the dance floor.   Moments of human frailty notwithstanding, it’s her positive, pro-active approach that ultimately shines through, giving her the ability to stand up against her oppressors – which she does in a memorable climactic scene that delivers both catharsis and righteous satisfaction to her emotional journey.

Of course, Marina’s strength as a character would be lost without a performer of equal strength in the role, and thankfully, “A Fantastic Woman” has found the perfect match in Daniela Vega – a real life trans singer (the magnificent contralto voice heard in the film is her own) who was originally approached by Lelio to act as a consultant before he decided to cast her as his lead.  Bringing the weight of her own experiences to the screen, she creates an unforgettable portrait of resilience.  Tender and demure yet spirited and ferocious, the bravery and honesty of her work gives us a Marina who is not only immediately likable but who gains our respect – as opposed to our pity – as the film goes on.  The raw power of this performance makes it one of the year’s outstanding turns by an actress on the big screen – deserving of the already-brewing buzz about a potential Oscar nod – and allows the movie itself to live up to its title.

Though Vega carries the bulk of the film on her capable shoulders, there is also some nice work from her fellow cast members.  Francisco Reyes does a fine job as Orlando; he generates a deep impression during his all-too-brief appearance, giving tangibility to Marina’s grief and creating a lingering memory which is as haunting to the audience as it is to her.  Aline Küppenheim and Nicolás Saavedra (as Orlando’s estranged wife and son, respectively) bring enough humanity to their roles to prevent them from becoming mere hateful caricatures, and Nicolás Saavedra successfully walks the thin line between professional courtesy and personal antipathy as a case-worker ostensibly assigned to help Marina in the aftermath of her tragedy.

As for the film itself, Lelio, working from a screenplay co-written by himself and Gonzalo Maza, has largely avoided over-the-top histrionics or soap-opera melodrama in favor of a restrained, contemplative approach.  Though throughout the story there are omnipresent reminders of the very real oppression of transgender people, “A Fantastic Woman” chooses to focus its attention on the personal quest for self-actualization instead of dwelling on social issues.  These things are neither ignored nor downplayed; rather, they are duly noted as Marina gets on with the business of rising above them.  As a result, what might have been a bleak and disheartening tale of transphobia becomes an uplifting portrait of personal triumph – sending a refreshingly positive message into a world wrapped (for the moment, at least) in regressive fear and uncertainty.

As a side note, “A Fantastic Woman,” which is a Chilean/German co-production, is one of five LGBTQ-themed titles that have been officially submitted for an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign Language Film.  Along with the others – Norway’s “Thelma,” France’s “BPM: Beats Per Minute,” South Africa’s “The Wound,” and Finland’s “Tom of Finland” – it stands as a positive representation of the community within a media that has been traditionally either hostile or indifferent to it.  Its an unlikely event that these five films would end up being the official slate of nominees; but odds are good that at least one of them will make the cut – and if that’s the case, it’s a win for all of us.

(Update: since the original publication of this review, “A Fantastic Woman” received the Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of 2017 – though Daniela Vega was not nominated for her performance, she still has the distinction of being the first trans actress to lead an Oscar-nominated film.)

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Wonderstruck (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Todd Haynes has a lot of his own history to live up to.

After establishing himself as an audacious talent with “Superstar” (which used Barbie dolls to tell the story of Karen Carpenter), he became a pioneer of the “new queer cinema” with “Poison,” and broke through to the mainstream by reinventing the glossy Hollywood melodrama in “Far from Heaven.”  He has pushed the boundaries of traditional narrative form, subverted cinematic tropes to challenge definitions of gay culture imposed by heteronormative society, and given voice to “otherness” through a medium in which it has historically been repressed.

With a pedigree like that, it may come as a surprise that, for his latest work, he has chosen to make what is essentially a feel-good family film.

Such a pairing of director to material might seem unlikely, at first; but once the film starts rolling, it doesn’t take long to realize that Haynes and “Wonderstruck” are a match made in movie heaven.

Through two interwoven stories, taking place 50 years apart, its the saga of two young runaways.  In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) – who has recently lost his mother to a traffic accident – embarks on a quest to find his father, whom he has never known; in 1927, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) flees her tyrannical father and goes to New York to seek out her favorite film star, Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore).  As their tales proceed, it becomes clear that the parallels between these two children are more than just a similarity of detail, and that they are somehow linked across time by the answers they pursue.

The conceit is inherently both literary and “gimmicky,” but the director – along with author Brian Selznick, who adapted the thoughtful screenplay from his own 2011 novel of the same name – has turned both those qualities into building blocks for pure cinema.  Known for appropriating vintage techniques in his work, Haynes takes full advantage of the opportunity to explore two widely different periods in a single film.  Each story is framed in the visual language of its era, utilizing the gritty milieu and unmistakable color palette of seventies cinema for Ben’s segments and the richly evocative black-and-white grandeur of the silent screen for Rose’s.  Both affectations, as executed by cinematographer Edward Lachman, are exquisitely realized, making “Wonderstruck,” perhaps above all else, a bewitching treat for the eyes.

Likewise, Haynes’ musical choices are canny reflections of each period.   His oft-noted love for seventies “outre” rock finds expression in Ben’s timeline through astute selections by David Bowie, Fripp and Eno, and Sweet; for Rose’s silent world, the near-constant orchestral accompaniment (by Haynes regular Carter Burwell) eloquently provides the emotional cues made necessary by the lack of spoken dialogue.

Equally on target are the film’s performances.  The ever-luminous Moore, a longtime muse for the director, proves yet again that she is one of her generation’s most gifted actresses with her virtually wordless performance.  Michelle Williams, as Ben’s doomed mother, strikes a perfect balance of warmth and melancholy.

Superb as these seasoned veterans are, the film rightly belongs to the trio of younger actors around whom its plot revolves.

Fegley and Simmonds both give mature, fleshed-out portrayals that engage our empathy for the duration of the film; and the winning Jaden Michael is a joy as Jaime, the lonely and sensitive boy who befriends Ben, providing an emotional ground in the here-and-now for a story which otherwise deals in unrequited connections between past and future.

It is the man behind the camera, however, who is the real star of “Wonderstruck.”  Though this heart-tugging fable about the enduring power of love might, in other hands, seem sappy and manipulative, Haynes – as much chameleon as auteur – embraces its sentimental qualities and deploys them with unflinching sincerity within the framework of his own distinctive style.  Informed by his fascination with semiotics, he explores its themes through layers of meaning intricately woven throughout its recurring motifs.  His use of the film’s preoccupation with architecture and museums is by itself worthy of extensive commentary – but the riches of this “cabinet of wonders” are best left to experience first-hand.

As a side note, Haynes is an “out” film director who has reached a place of prominence in the industry, and as such carries the hopes and expectations of an entire community on his shoulders.  Although “Wonderstruck” is a “non-queer” story, it is told with unmistakably queer sensibilities.  As always, Haynes gives us a film about societal “outliers” trying to find their place in a world that has no room for them – something that goes right to the heart of the LGBTQ experience, yet speaks to the yearnings of a broader audience as well.

This universal appeal means that most viewers will likely fall in love with “Wonderstruck.”  Not only is it Haynes’ most accessible work to date, it is one of those rare films that truly deserves to be called “magical.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (2017)

thedeathandlifeofmarshapjohnson_posterToday’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Los Angeles Blade

On June 6, 1992, a body was pulled out of the Hudson River onto a West Village pier.  Bystanders quickly recognized it as that of Marsha P. Johnson, a well-known figure in the neighborhood and one of the most visible – and colorful – personalities in the ongoing movement for gay and transgender rights.

Born in New Jersey as Malcolm Michaels in 1945, Johnson had moved to New York at 18, where she became a fixture in the drag balls and street life of the Village.  By 1969 she was a regular at the Stonewall Inn, and she was a key participant in the landmark riots that began there when police raided the bar in the early morning hours of June 28 that year.  Popular legend has maintained that she was the first, or one of the first, to fight back – though she herself disputed that claim, stating that she had arrived well after the conflict had already started.  Regardless of the details, it’s undeniable that she was central to the events of that night and the nights that followed, and that she emerged as a leader in the Gay Liberation Movement that sprung out of them.

Consequently, at the time of her death, the local LGBTQ community responded with surprise and outrage when the police, without any substantial investigation, officially declaring her drowning a suicide – despite insistence from friends and witnesses that she had been a victim of foul play.

This still-unresolved controversy lies at the center of filmmaker David France’s new documentary, “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” a film whose title both misleads and tells you exactly what you are about to see.

Rather than presenting a straightforward profile of the beloved LGBTQ activist, France’s film instead focuses its attention on a less famous heroine – Victoria Cruz, a case worker on the verge of retirement from New York’s Anti-Violence Project.  Dedicating her final days on the job to the pursuit of long-overdue justice, Cruz is shown re-examining the files and evidence surrounding Johnson’s untimely death.  She interviews the late icon’s family and friends – such as longtime roommate Randy Wicker, who reported Marsha missing nearly a week before her body was found.  She pores through old news clippings and footage, tracks down retired law enforcement officials, and petitions for autopsy reports long hidden in police storerooms.

Like France’s previous film, “How to Survive a Plague,” this movie is not merely a chronicle of events; rather, in following Cruz’ search for truth and justice, it evokes the spirit of activism that Marsha embodied.  The investigation into her death becomes a springboard into not only a retrospective of the struggle for rights and recognition that defined her own life and times, but into an indictment of our culture’s relationship with violence against its marginalized populations – and in particular, transgender women.

Part of the backdrop of the contemporary segments is the 2016 trial of James Dixon for the murder of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman from Harlem whom he had beaten to death after friends teased him for flirting with her.  The highly-publicized case provides a somber observation of how things have changed since Marsha’s nearly-anonymous death, yet also how much they have not.  Dixon’s defense – that he had been humiliated by “being fooled” – has eerie parallels to stories told by Marsha herself about “tricks” who became enraged after discovering her true gender (even after being repeatedly forewarned), and is a common refrain echoed in similar cases before and since.

Ultimately, as the film makes clear, it is uncertain whether Marsha met her end in such an incident, and it is beyond France’s scope to delve deeper into the issue of anti-trans violence.  Nevertheless, “The Death of Marsha P. Johnson” gives it enough of a peripheral glance to serve as a grim reminder of how far our society has yet to go in its protection of the most vulnerable among us.

Yet although it is, at its core, a film about tragedy, it’s also about the resilience of those determined to rise above it.  France gives us plenty of Marsha at her audacious best, displaying the kind of dignity and character that belied her status as one of society’s outcasts – a fringe-dweller forced to make her living as a sex worker even as she was being photographed by Warhol and lauded as one of the LGBTQ movement’s foremost campaigners.  Marsha had it tough, but she devoted herself to making life better for an entire community whose existence was a daily struggle.

Reinforcing this theme of dedication, the movie devotes considerable screen time to Sylvia Rivera, another social justice pioneer who was Johnson’s closest friend.  Archival footage documents not only their side-by-side efforts for the trans community, but also her own fall into alcoholism and homelessness before reclaiming her role as one of the movement’s greatest heroines.

Watching these two “drag queens” (their own preferred self-identification), presented alongside the modern-day saga of Cruz and others who carry their torch, brings home the point of “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.”  Though France provides the biographical background we expect, and piques our interest with a true-life detective story, his true purpose is not to inform or to intrigue – he wants to inspire us, even incite us.  His movie is no less than a call to action.

Though she never referred to herself as “transgender,” Marsha was nevertheless a fierce activist and vocal advocate for the trans community, and has been embraced as one of their most revered icons.  At a time in our history when the powers that be are pushing back hard against trans acceptance and equality, David France’s film is an important reminder of the humanity at stake.

By using her life – and death – as a means to spread that message, he does Marsha P. Johnson proud.

The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in
The Los Angeles Blade

For a certain generation of gay men and women, the name Armistead Maupin will always strike a deep and richly satisfying chord in the soul.  His serialized “Tales of the City,” which ran throughout the late seventies and early eighties in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle (and later the San Francisco Examiner) before being widely published as a series of popular novels, captured the heady atmosphere of its exciting time, and through the intertwined sagas of its assorted characters – gay, straight, and in between – it encouraged its readers to embrace their own queerness and live an open and authentic life.

Nearly forty years later, Maupin’s beloved stories are as relevant as ever.  With three successful TV miniseries having brought them to an even wider audience (and a fourth reportedly in the works), the lives of Mary Ann, Mouse, Mona, and Mrs. Madrigal are as famous and familiar to many of us as our own – much more famous and familiar, in fact, than the life of their creator.

That may soon change.  The author has penned a memoir, ”Logical Family,” which will be published in October.  Around the same time, a documentary, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin,” is due to hit screens after a tour of film festivals across the country – including a recent showing at Los Angeles’ own Outfest.

Directed by Jennifer M. Kroot (also responsible for 2014’s documentary, “To Be Takei”), the new film takes audiences on a tour of Maupin’s storied career, of course, but it also delves into the life he lived before becoming one of the foremost literary voices of the LGBTQ community.

Born into a North Carolina family with roots in the aristocracy of the American South, Maupin grew up in a deeply conservative environment.  He became interested in journalism while attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and spent time after his graduation working for future U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, who managed a TV station in Raleigh.  Subsequently, he served multiple tours of duty in the U.S. Navy (one in Viet Nam) before returning to the states to begin the newspaper career which would ultimately take him to San Francisco.

Needless to say, perhaps, he remained closeted throughout all this time.  Though he knew he was gay from an early age, he never acted upon it until he was 26 years old.  The details of that encounter are among the many biographical anecdotes Maupin shares in interviews throughout Kroot’s movie.

A considerable portion of the film’s 90 minute run time, in fact, is made up of interview footage, but this never feels like a cop-out.  This is largely due to the way Kroot pieces together her movie; instead of placing events in a chronological sequence, she separates them into sections devoted to particular subject matter, cross-referencing between time periods to make connections and underscore recurring themes in the author’s life and work – and by extension, in the history of the LGBTQ community.

This process is facilitated by the use of archival footage, a wealth of photographs capturing the rich history of San Francisco, and even animated sequences which serve as transitions between the movie’s various chapters.  There is liberal use of excerpts from the televised adaptations of “Tales,” which astutely illustrate the parallels between the author’s real-life story and the events and characters in his writing.

Even so, the movie’s strongest appeal comes from hearing Maupin speak for himself, which he does with disarming wit and candor; his expansive persona comes across onscreen with so much easy-going familiarity that one walks away from the film with the impression of having spent the time with him in person – not as an audience member, but as an intimate friend.  It doesn’t feel like artifice, either.  Though he carries the air of a genteel “southern gentleman” (there’s still the slightest hint of that accent), and though he displays a well-mannered delicacy even as he talks openly about his own sexual exploits, there is no arrogance or pretense here.  He comes across as the genuine article, a product of his past who approaches life with an open heart.

Though Maupin’s interviews form the bulk of the film’s “talking head” footage, there are a host of others offering their insights as well.  Appearances from Neil Gaiman, Amy Tan, Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Olympia Dukakis, Margaret Cho, and several others help to illuminate the far-reaching impact made by the author – not just through his work, but through his connections and influence as a core figure in LGBTQ culture.  Though he himself maintains a tasteful humility, the film makes it clear that Maupin is as much of an icon as any of the famous names with whom he has rubbed elbows over the years.

As interesting as all this biographical information may be, though, Kroot’s film does not use it as an end in itself; rather, it helps her to impart a much deeper revelation about her subject.  For by tracing Maupin’s path through the past five decades in the history of gay life, she shows just how much he has given back to the community that made him a success.  After all, he made his name by giving voice to the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of millions of his fellows; and in doing so he provided a touchstone for them all, a sort of emotional road map by which they could chart their own journeys through the changing social and sexual attitudes of the era.  Quite simply, he united them into a sort of extended family.

This point is driven home in what is perhaps the movie’s most memorable sequence, in which Maupin relates how he came out to his family through one of his most beloved characters.  In “More Tales of the City,” Michael “Mouse” Tolliver writes a letter to his mother telling her that he is gay, in a chapter expressly written by the author with the intention that his own parents would read it and understand that it was his personal message to them.  Kroot then splices together segments of the letter being read (and sung) aloud, powerfully illustrating how Maupin’s work gave words to the hearts and minds of an entire community – and providing an unexpectedly moving culmination to her film.

Powerful climax notwithstanding, “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin” is largely a light affair; though it necessarily travels down a few dark roads (after all, the author’s history runs straight through the middle of the AIDS epidemic), it is marked throughout by a tone of wit and positivity – fully in keeping with the good-natured personality of its subject.  It flies by and leaves you hungry for more, like a coffee date with an old friend with whom you can never spend enough time.  It will likely inspire you to revisit “Tales of the City,” or even better, to discover some of Maupin’s other writings.  Perhaps it will even inspire you to live more freely, like the denizens of 28 Barbary Lane.

Whatever it inspires you to do, you will find it to be time well-spent.

 

 

 

Dunkirk (2017)

big_startfilmru1365635Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Christopher Nolan may be one of the most prominent of modern filmmakers, but he is surprisingly old-fashioned.

Consider his newest film, the highly-anticipated WWII drama, “Dunkirk.”  In tackling a war movie (one of the oldest cinematic genres imaginable), he relies mostly on tricks of the trade established since the silent era, eschewing dialogue in favor of visual storytelling and favoring practical effects over computerized ones.

Not only that, he continues to champion the use of film over digital cinematography.  “Dunkirk” is one of the rare contemporary films to be shot on widescreen film stock and presented in 70 MM format, delivering an experience that feels like one of those classic big screen extravaganzas of old.

Despite his tried-and-true approach, though, Nolan also brings his own contemporary perspective to the mix; this combination results in not only the most immersive, visually impressive war film in recent memory, but also the most thoughtful and challenging.

For those who need a brief history lesson, Dunkirk is a town on the French coast of the English Channel where hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers were trapped in the summer of 1940.  Surrounded by Nazi forces, these combined English, French, and Belgian troops awaited evacuation on the beach while being pummeled from air and sea.  Nolan’s film tells the story of their miraculous rescue from this dire situation.

Challenged with the task of capturing such an epic event in a way that brings it to his audience as concisely as possible, Nolan has chosen to split his movie into three interwoven stories.  In one, we follow a young English soldier on the beach as he struggles to survive; in another, a civilian boat captain answers the call for private vessels to assist in the evacuation and sets sail across the Channel with his son and a young deck hand; and in the third, British fighter pilots attempt to fend off attacks against the rescue ships and stranded troops by engaging Nazi planes in dogfights above the beach.

Through these separate plotlines, Nolan raises the individual stakes within each story while building the tension that drives the larger narrative, providing a cumulative payoff when they finally come together for the climactic sequence they all share.

It’s this structure where Nolan most notably breaks from traditional style.  Although the interwoven narrative is not, in itself, an unusual device, the director adds an extra layer by playing tricks with the passage of time.  Without giving anything away, it’s safe to say that there are frequent moments when it’s difficult to tell where each storyline is in relation to the others – or to the over-arching action.  The result is a disorientation which contributes to the overall sense of being in the midst of battle.  It’s a challenging conceit, and although Nolan plainly sets up the rules early in the film, some viewers are bound to find it confusing.

Like any “auteur” filmmaker, Nolan’s entire of body of work explores recurring themes and repeated elements which make them distinctly and unmistakably his own.  He has always been preoccupied with time in his movies, so it’s no surprise that he brings this obsession into “Dunkirk.”

The trouble with auteurs, however, is that appreciation of their work becomes a matter of taste which affects their entire canon.  If one doesn’t like Nolan’s trademark blend of mind-bending narrative style and coldly philosophical thematic underpinnings, one is likely to find all of his movies unsatisfying.  For that reason, “Dunkirk” will almost certainly frustrate those who are unimpressed with its director’s creative quirks.

That said, for those who are attuned to Nolan’s vision, “Dunkirk” is a truly magnificent film – possibly his best work to date – which embraces the form of the traditional war picture while simultaneously re-inventing it.  It’s full of tropes, but the complexity with which Nolan infuses them makes them feel fresh, allowing him to use them as comfortable touchstones as he takes us on an intense journey through the harrowing and hellish landscape of war.

That journey would certainly not be possible without the sheer scope and size of his imagery (captured by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema); but equally important is Hans Zimmer’s remarkable electronic score, which blends the thundering, sternum-shaking noises of combat so seamlessly into the ever-ascending music that it creates a kind of aural cocoon in which inner and outer realities merge.  This, combined with the expert editing by Lee Smith, allows Nolan to deliver a movie which avoids overt manipulation and sentimentality yet offers sublime moments of accumulated empathy that may require a tissue or two from some viewers.

As for the cast, it’s a true ensemble, in which established stars (Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy) serve side by side with lesser-known faces.  The entire company deserves equal praise, but for reasons of space I will limit myself to singling out One Direction’s Harry Styles, in his first screen role as one of the soldiers awaiting rescue, who belies any notion of stunt-casting with an ego-free performance that stands on its own merit alongside those of his on-screen cohorts.

It must be mentioned that “Dunkirk” has received some criticism for its lack of diversity.  While the majority of personnel involved in the real-life evacuation were undoubtedly white men, there were also men of color on that beach, none of whom appear onscreen.  In addition, though the film does feature a few fleeting glimpses of women, they are more or less relegated to the background.  It’s necessary to take note of such oversights as part of the important ongoing conversation about “whitewashing” in the film industry,

Still, in terms of judging the film for what it shows us (and not what it doesn’t), “Dunkirk” is powerful cinematic art.  Though not overtly an “anti-war” film, it shows us the chaos of war alongside both the best and worst of what it brings out in humanity, without sentimentality or judgment.  It focuses on survival over heroism, yet reveals that compassion leads to heroic acts.   Perhaps most impressively, it avoids political commentary while inspiring us to find hope in the face of overwhelming oppression and defeat.

That alone makes “Dunkirk” a profoundly suitable war movie for these troubled times.

God’s Own Country (2017)

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When “Brokeback Mountain” arrived on the scene in 2005, it was almost unthinkable that a big-budget Hollywood film about a same-sex romance between two sheep herders could even get made, let alone go on to become a critically-lauded, multi-award-winning cultural phenomenon.  To be sure, it had its share of detractors, but the favor it gained within the mainstream was a clear sign that the tide was turning with regards to LGBTQ acceptance.

In those pre-marriage-equality days, its tragic tale of love thwarted by social intolerance was a somber testament of truth for the millions of queer people who had lived such lives through the generations that had come before – and make no mistake, it’s still a story that needs to be told.  Even so, there are many who felt that the film’s star-crossed lovers deserved a happier fate.

Now, twelve years later, they just might get a second chance – at least by proxy – in filmmaker Francis Lee’s quietly breathtaking debut feature, “God’s Own Country.”

Set in the bleak highlands of modern-day Yorkshire, it centers on Johnny Saxby, a young man who lives and works on his family’s struggling farm.  By night, he escapes from his grueling existence by drinking himself into a stupor at the village pub; occasionally, he finds temporary escape in anonymous sexual encounters with other men at the cattle auction or, presumably, from the surrounding area.  His routine is disrupted, however, when his father brings in Gheorghe, a Romanian immigrant worker, to help with the sheep during lambing season; though he is at first resentful and abusive of the new hired hand, a powerful attraction soon develops between the two men.

How things unfold from there is the main business of the movie, and it would be bad form to reveal how it eventually plays out; suffice to say that, despite the similarities in their subject matter, “God’s Own Country” is a very different experience from “Brokeback.”

It is, of course, patently unfair to define Lee’s heartfelt and highly personal film in relation to another movie, no matter how much the comparison begs to be made – but it’s hard to avoid pointing out at least one particularly telling detail.  In “Brokeback,” the two protagonists face homophobia from both without and within; but in the contemporary world of “God’s Own Country,” that homophobia is more of a phantom threat than a concrete one.  The people around Johnny seem to accept his sexuality; and although he himself struggles with internalized shame, it may have less to do with being gay than it does with a fear of intimacy.

It’s this that makes the movie as far removed from “Brokeback” in tone and attitude as it is in the time and place of its setting, and it makes all the difference.

Lee’s film is a patient, understated, and touching portrait of two men as they find the courage to break through barriers – not social, but personal – to reach each other.  It’s a struggle we’ve seen explored by heterosexual lovers in countless romantic dramas, but for gay couples on the screen the obstacles have historically been cultural or political.  Though such factors may lie at the root of Johnny and Gheorghe’s issues, there is no need for them to change the world to be together – only themselves.  In this way, their story is perhaps more closely related to Andrew Haigh’s excellent “Weekend” than it is to that other sheep wrangler movie.

Comparisons aside, “God’s Own Country” stands tall on its own considerable merits.  Inspired by his coming of age in Yorkshire (the movie was filmed in his own village, with the farm where he grew up only a short distance from the shooting location), Lee has written and crafted a lovingly detailed work, as rigorous in its painstaking authenticity as it is poetic in its cinematic expression.

There’s much to appreciate in Lee’s directorial approach.  He proves himself a master of visual storytelling, communicating some of the film’s most potent moments with little or no dialogue, and orchestrating a rich symbolic subtext with subtle visual cues throughout – like the muted reds and blues of Gheorghe’s knit sweater, which make it shine amidst the movie’s stark grey palette like a multi-hued beacon of hope.  He is equally shrewd in what he doesn’t show; he largely eschews the wide landscapes typical of such pastoral romances, instead keeping his camera – and the story – focused on the personal and intimate.

He also draws superb performances from his actors.  Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu make Johnny and Gheorghe, respectively, as genuine as they are endearing; their natural ease with their surroundings– Lee put them to work on a farm for several weeks before shooting – underscores and enhances not only the realism of their acting but of the movie itself.  Most importantly, they have a rare chemistry that wins the audience from their first meeting – and places their love scenes among the sexiest big-screen pairings in recent memory.

In the smaller (but crucial) roles of Johnny’s father and grandmother, Ian Hart and Gemma Jones give quiet, dignified eloquence to characters who, in a lesser film, might have been rendered as course and one-dimensional stereotypes.  Far from being antagonists, they provide a rich and fertile ground from which the film’s love story can grow.

It should be noted that “God’s Own Country” does contain some full-frontal nudity and relatively explicit sexual content.  This will doubtless be reason enough to entice many viewers within the film’s target audience, but there is so much more in this little gem of a British import to warrant seeking it out.

Though it may not attract much mainstream attention, “God’s Own Country” feels important.  When a movie about two men who fall in love with each other doesn’t feel the need to justify its own existence by advancing a social or political agenda, it’s proof that the turn of the tide signaled by “Brokeback,” not so very long ago, has carried us at last to an era in which a “gay movie” can simply be called “a movie.”

The fact that it’s also an excellent movie is a welcome bonus.

 

 

mother! (2017)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

Darren Aronofsky doesn’t make movies for your enjoyment.

From the earliest days of his career, his films have been a relentless barrage of grotesque and transgressive imagery, built around themes of paranoia and self-destruction, and tied together into a debasing experience that feels less like a catharsis than an assault.

Consequently, it seems odd that viewers would expect his latest work – “mother!” – to be the kind of tried-and-true psychological thriller its advertising would suggest; it seems even more odd that their reaction to it would be one of surprise and even outrage.

Yet that is precisely what happened.

During the movie’s opening weekend, critics and audiences alike labeled it as a “flop” within moments of walking out of the theater, and took to social media with ranting diatribes calling it one of “the worst movies ever made” – but does it really deserve such labels?  The answer to that question may be as perplexing as the film itself.

“mother!” is ostensibly the tale of a young woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who lives with her author husband (Javier Bardem), in an isolated house in the country.  She works hard restoring their home, previously burned in a fire, while he struggles with writer’s block, but their life together seems tranquil and full of hope – until a strange couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) unexpectedly arrives at their doorstep, threatening the stability of the idyllic world they have built for themselves.

The premise echoes countless other thrillers in which happy couples are terrorized by interlopers, and forced to face uncomfortable truths about themselves as they battle to restore order to their lives.  Though Aronofsky quickly derails the formula with his customary descent into nightmare logic, he nevertheless takes on all the tropes of the genre – buried secrets, subversions of intimacy, implications of “gaslighting,” even good old-fashioned jump scares.  He doesn’t necessarily take them seriously; indeed, he milks them for considerable humor, using them to mock both themselves and the audience’s willingness to buy into them, even as he twists them into the service of his larger agenda.

He utilizes a similar combination of homage and satire in the repurposing of some of his own now-familiar tools, most notably the “unreliable narrator” technique.  Almost the entirety of “mother!” is focused in close-up proximity to Lawrence’s character; most of the action comes to our attention through a sort of peripheral vision which not only serves as a reminder that we are seeing it through her eyes, but creates a dreamlike flow which warns us that not everything in this film should be taken at face value.

It’s a warning well worth heeding.

Behind its thin disguise, “mother!” carries an ambitious vision.  From the bones of its generic horror plot, Aronofsky has built no less than a cosmic allegory about the eternal dance between creation and destruction.  Rife with Freudian underpinnings and Biblical overtones, flavored by the director’s darkly surreal visual style, and exploring a daunting array of themes, it’s a construct so dense with metaphor that its layers reflect endlessly upon each other like an infinite funhouse mirror.

It might be said that so much significance to unpack reduces the film to the level of a pretentious intellectual exercise, or that the Harvard-educated Aronofsky’s own privileged background is inseparable from the observations he makes.

Nevertheless, any honest artist must draw on personal experience in creating their work, and while these qualifications may be necessary for a discussion of the movie’s relevance within the larger culture, they are ultimately irrelevant to assessing the skill with which Aronofsky has executed his film or the impact it has upon the viewer.

Both are considerable.  The filmmaker has crafted a screenplay which deftly weaves  complex ideas into a simple narrative as it constructs a post-modern Creation Myth – with a decidedly feminist flavor –  out of a “B” movie structure; he has translated it onscreen with a blend of arch self-awareness and unabashed authenticity.  His film boasts a collection of superb performances (particularly Pfeiffer’s) and a masterful use of cinematography and sound in its depiction of a pastoral world slowly devolving into a landscape of dark esoterica.

Why, then, do so many people hate it?  Despite its calculated intellectualism, “mother!” is a deeply visceral experience that hits us in our most uncomfortable, instinctual places – but perhaps more than that, it leaves us with a sense of betrayal.

From its very beginning moments, Aronofsky makes us think we know exactly where he’s taking us; he telegraphs all his tricks with such a heavy hand that it puts us off almost as much as the escalating gore and violence; and yet, in the end, he still manages to pull the rug out from under us.  He takes our expectations and turns them against us, and it feels like a dirty trick.

It’s no wonder that many viewers have felt like they have been subjected to the same kind of psychological abuse suffered by Lawrence through most of the film – but that doesn’t mean it deserves to be written off with the vehemence and vitriol it has inspired in so many of its detractors.

Aronofsky never meant to make a simple horror movie that would disquiet you for the duration and then send you home feeling safe, secure, and satisfied.  To consider “mother!” a failure is to miss the director’s intention entirely.  His movie may not be for everyone, but it is also cinematic expression at a level of fearlessness almost unheard of in American filmmaking.  It’s a work by an artist at the peak of his talents, who seeks to challenge and provoke us – whether we like it or not.

With that in mind, his movie is perhaps too successful for its own good.

It Comes At Night (2017)

Today’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade

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The greatest horror films are never just about scaring us.  The Exorcist or The Babadook may present us with demons, but they are really showing us the hidden evil in our own lives; every slasher flick is really a morality tale in which the smallest sins are harshly punished; and even Frankenstein or Dracula, in all their incarnations, are more about the twisted pathways of the human psyche than they are about the terrors of the supernatural.

Such movies, like fables from the Brothers Grimm, are cautionary tales which teach us lessons by tapping into our deepest fears.  Good filmmakers understand this, and they root the scares they deliver onscreen into something deeper than the artificial scenarios that provide them.  It Comes At Night, the new thriller from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, aspires to follow this example.

A grim parable about human nature masquerading as an apocalyptic survival tale, it centers on a small family (Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) that have boarded themselves up at an isolated house in the woods after the outbreak of a terrifying plague which brings an agonizing death to anyone who contracts it.  When a surprise intruder turns out to be seeking water for his own nearby family, they decide to invite these strangers to live among them.  At first, the newcomers (Christopher Abbot, Riley Keogh, and Griffin Robert Faulkner) are a welcome addition to the household; but after a mysterious event sows the seeds of mistrust, the family begins to fear that inviting these outsiders into their home may have jeopardized their own survival.

Such a premise has direct connections to the kind of double-edged dramas featured on shows like The Twilight Zone, which often presented a “what if” microcosm in which to explore the hot-button issues of the day.  The parallel is highly apt to today’s world; in the age of Brexit and Trump, with its resurgence of Nationalism and xenophobia, existential fear has boiled to the surface of our communal awareness much in the way it did during those precarious days of the Cold War era.

Shults has adapted this time-tested formula for contemporary audiences; the conflict he presents reflects the concerns of our own time, but he doesn’t hammer home his point.  Rather, he invites us to make the connections for ourselves, and focuses his efforts instead on frightening us.

He begins his film with a traumatic sequence which establishes the horrors of its disease-borne threat while emotionally bonding us to the family at its center; he builds a tense and oppressive mood throughout, creating a sense of claustrophobia — even in the open forest outside the house – which underscores the pervading fear that there can be no real escape; he evokes a feverish delirium by progressively blending scenes of nightmare and reality until we have difficulty telling which is which; and he brings us to a ferocious climax which undercuts its inevitability by surprising us with devastating immediacy.

Apart from its opening and climactic sequences, however, It Comes At Night may fall short of expectation for many hardcore fright-seekers.  Although he provides plenty of creepy moments and jump-in-your-seat scares along the way, Shults has taken a less-is-more approach.  He seeks to disturb, not to terrify, and as a result the film plays more like psychodrama than horror.  This, of course, allows us the opportunity to recognize the allegorical threads of his story and connect them to the issues which it is his real agenda to address.

To a point, those connections are pretty clear.  The two families live in a world of fear, and must decide whether to cooperate or isolate, to help each other or look out for their own interests; the choices they make are clouded by paranoia and mistrust, and their ultimate survival likely depends on how well they are able to overcome those obstacles.  You can’t come up with a plainer metaphor for the challenge of living in a global community than that.

From there, though, things get a little vague.  Following the lead of such recent horror efforts as Robert Eggers’ The Witch, Shults deliberately masks the specifics of his story in such a way that many key events are left for the audience imagine for themselves.  This results in an ambiguity which forces us to draw our own conclusions about which approach is right — or indeed, whether it ultimately even matters which one we choose.

While this opaque approach lends itself well to multiple interpretations, it can also create the risk of muddy storytelling.  Unfortunately, this is the case with It Comes At Night.  Shults leaves a little too much to the imagination, resulting in enough uncertainty about the plot to leave us more confused than stimulated when the credits finally roll.  Indeed, this lack of clarity makes the film’s ending seem abrupt, and audiences are likely to go home with the feeling that they must have missed something important.

This is particularly disappointing in view of the movie’s deeper ambitions.  Though comparison is seldom fair, one cannot help but be reminded of this year’s earlier social-commentary-as-horror offering, Jordan Peele’s brilliant Get Out, a film which dazzled largely because of the clear and concise lines between its sensational plot and its slyly satirical observations.  The intentions are different here, of course, but Shults has chosen to blur his lines instead, and the result is a promise that never feels fulfilled.

This is not to say that It Comes At Night  is a failure; Shults is a gifted filmmaker, and he has succeeded well in crafting a moody and engaging thriller.  His cast is excellent, and the cinematography by Drew Daniels is a master class in atmosphere.  The pieces are all there, even if the film as a whole is unsatisfying.

T2: Trainspotting (2017)

t_two_trainspotting_ver6_xxlgToday’s Cinema Adventure was originally published in

The Los Angeles Blade.

A little over two decades ago, though English director Danny Boyle had built a reputation in his native country with his work in theatre and his first movie had just won a BAFTA award, he was still an unknown quantity to the rest of the world.  That changed when his second feature roared onto screens in 1996; immediately embraced by audiences and heralded by critics as a rebirth of Great British Cinema, it became an instant pop culture phenomenon, and suddenly his name was no longer as obscure as the quaint English pastime from which it drew its title.

That movie was, of course, “Trainspotting,” and twenty years later, thanks to its enduring popularity, it has gained iconic status.  Now, at least partly for the same reason, it has also gained a sequel.  Still, “T2: Trainspotting” is no mere effort at pandering to fans; Boyle, now an Oscar-winner and power player, has long spoken of a desire to revisit his breakthrough film because he felt there was still a story to be told.  With the help of original screenwriter John Hodge, he has mined the source novel (by Irvine Welsh) and its follow-up, “Porno,” to flesh out that story, and re-enlisted the now-considerably-craggier original cast to bring it to life.

For those who need a refresher, “Trainspotting” followed the wild-and-wooly exploits of a cadre of young mates – Renton (“Rent Boy”), Daniel (“Spud”), Simon (“Sick Boy”), and Franco (“Begbie”) – as they tried to navigate life (and heroin addiction) in the economically depressed slums of Edinburgh.  It ends with Renton leaving his friends behind in the squalor of their dead-end lives, as he escapes with the hope of building a better one for himself.  “T2” rejoins them 20 years later, as he returns to make amends.  Things aren’t much different, despite the intervening years.  It’s as if time has stood still for these men, or rather they have stood still while time passed them by.  Their world is still defined by the blight of poverty, and the oft-repeated catchphrase, “Choose Life,” seems as much a gilded lie as it was in their youth.  And of course there are still the drugs, with their insidious allure, and the abdication of responsibility which comes with them.  This time around, though, percolating under it all, are a host of long-buried conflicts- with each other and with themselves- which their reunion inevitably brings to the surface.

Boyle directed “Trainspotting” with the exuberant, visually engaging style which has marked his entire output.  Driven by irreverent energy, it was in turn dizzyingly joyous and harrowingly dark, laced with absurdity and irony, and marked by a refusal to rely on the tropes of social realism.  That same vision propels “T2”: it shares the same essential elements (arresting camerawork, bright colors, free-associative imagery, an edgy pop-music soundtrack), and adds a touch of self-referential humor to the mix (clever acknowledgment of the notoriously thick Scottish dialects, for instance, and several nods to the original’s iconic toilet scene).  The new film unquestionably feels like a natural extension of the old- perhaps a bit more sophisticated, and maybe a bit mellower, but no less audacious.

The cast clearly relishes its chance to revisit these characters.  Leading it, of course, is Ewan McGregor as Renton, bringing the same intelligence and good nature which allows us to like this character even when his choices strike us as questionable.  The formidable Jonny Lee Miller is every bit his equal, managing to be somehow lovable as Sick Boy, the inept con artist on the other side of their precarious bromance.  Ewen Bremner is again both comical and heartbreaking as Spud, and Robert Carlyle gives us a Begbie whose ferocity and haplessness have only been magnified by the passage of time.  Finally, new addition Anjela Nedyalkova brings a complex blend of warm and cold- along with a fresh perspective- into the mix as Simon’s Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika.

When a sequel appears to such a revered original, there is always a question of worthiness.  The intervening years have added layers of resonance which help to make “T2: Trainspotting” a compelling two hours, and Boyle and company have certainly brought the same level of energy and expertise to the table.  Its quality is undeniable.  Is it a masterpiece of the caliber of its predecessor?  Not quite.  Does it add something essential to the story?  Perhaps not.  Nevertheless, any film as intelligent, superbly executed, and downright entertaining as this one will always be welcome- and that not only makes it necessary, but very worthy indeed.